All eyes will be on the T20 World Cup in the coming weeks. I rather fancy England to do well, especially after our two wins against the hosts in the warm-up series. However, I’m not so sure about our chances in Pakistan when the grind of Test cricket returns. It will be great to watch England play in Pakistan again. But we might have to avert our eyes if things go south quickly.
After winning 6 out of 7 Tests this summer, lots of supporters seem bullish about England’s prospects in the three-match series. Sadly, I don’t share their optimism and, as a Cricket Betting Man, I’ll be putting my hard-earned on the hosts. I’ve watched enough cricket this millennium to know that home victories are usually pretty routine for England; it’s abroad where we struggle so much. Form on the lush pitches of Blighty will mean diddlysquat when we take the field on the brown surfaces of Asia.
I’m also feeling a tad pessimistic after seeing England’s squad. Basically, it doesn’t seem to have been thought through properly. There’s just one keeper in Ben Foakes, just one specialist spinner in Jack Leach, and the selection of Liam Livingstone, talented lad though he is, makes me feel very uncomfortable. Livingstone hasn’t played a single game in whites this calendar year. What’s more, the last time he played championship cricket (in 2021) he averaged the grand total of 11 in six games.
Livingstone’s selection is also, well, just plain wrong. It devalues the format and it’s a slap in the face for all the hard-working cricketers who regularly represent the counties that made them. Young Liam may prove to be a good selection in time, and I sincerely wish him well, but he simply didn’t earn this call up. It’s not right.
On the other hand, however, I understand that there’s not much point in getting worked up about the selection of someone who’s likely to carry the drinks. It’s the rest of the squad that concerns me. The selection of just one specialist spinner is a real head-scratcher, especially as Jack Leach sadly suffers from Crohn’s disease and has a track-record of falling ill before games (especially overseas). If this happens in Pakistan then there’s zero chance of England actually fielding a balanced XI.
Although some observers have argued that the pitches will suit Pakistan’s pacemen, and drawn distinctions between conditions in Pakistan and India, I think they’re missing the broader point here. For starters, spin played an important role on Australia’s tour of Pakistan earlier this year. Both Nathan Lyon and Nauman Ali were amongst the leading wicket-takers in the series, even if their wickets came at a higher cost than the seamers. What’s more, spinners’ contributions can’t always be measured in averages alone. They’re essential because they offer control and bowl a lot of overs, which keeps the seamers fresh. Can you see part-timers like Root and Will Jacks, who was also a slightly odd selection, filling this role if Leach is ruled out? Not me. Both of them average around 50 in first class cricket with the ball.
The seam bowling department also concerns me; although, to be fair, there’s not a lot else the selectors could have done in the circumstances. Injuries to Jofra Archer and Olly Stone prevented them from adding more pace to the squad. I fear that the likes of Overton and even Robinson, on his first tour of Asia, won’t worry the Pakistani batsmen too much without assistance from the surfaces. Mark Wood will need to stay fit for all three Tests if England are going to take 20 wickets.
The batting is also obviously a concern. Jonny Bairstow will be missed. And the possible replacements are all question marks. Harry Brook is talented but inexperienced – it will be a huge step up – whilst Ben Duckett seems like a bit of a leftfield selection. Yes, he scored heavily in the championship this summer but I’ve always seen him as more of a white ball player. He’s often struggled in division 1 so are big runs in division two this year really evidence that he’s turned a corner?
The other selection (or rather non-selection) that bothers me is the absence of an authentic reserve keeper. Couldn’t England have toured with 16 rather than 15 players? I just don’t understand the thinking. England will need to take every half-chance they get if they want to be competitive in this series. Obviously Pope and Duckett have the ability to keep wicket in an emergency but they’re ‘stoppers’ rather than accomplished glovemen.
Overall, therefore, I don’t think this squad gives England the best chance of success. The selectors have tried to be too clever and, in their attempt to cover all bases, they’ve ended up covering very few (not property, anyway). There are too many bits and pieces cricketers rather than true specialists. Root, Livingston and Jacks, for example, can all bowl some spin. But three part-time (or subpar) spinners is no compensation for a genuine spinner. I think that Liam Patterson White, whose career average of 28 is highly promising for a young spinner considering that most championship cricket is played in April, May and September these days, can consider himself unlucky. Ditto Matt Parkinson, who seems to have been written off after one Test appearance in which he was a last minute concussion-replacement and wouldn’t have had any time to prepare mentally.
So can England win in Pakistan in the run-up to Christmas? It’s not impossible. But it will be hugely improbable if anything happens to Ben Foakes or Leach. Yes, it’s always possible to fly in Lions players if there’s 48 hours notice or more. But adapting to Test cricket in foreign conditions isn’t easy. And if one of these key players goes down on the morning of the game (or even the day before) then England’s final XI could look very unbalanced and rather silly.